In anticipation of a crucial decision to be made by the Government of Cameroon on the renewal of a land lease for a controversial oil palm project, EIA releases today a video that shows how the large-scale project has negatively impacted the lives of thousands of community members, threatened biodiversity hotspots, and failed to meet development promises to local communities in the Southwest region of Cameroon. The video, “The Wrong Project in the Wrong Place,” is the result of a collaboration with local, national, and international environmental groups.
By the end of November 2016, the Government of Cameroon is expected to issue a crucial decision for the future of its forests. The respect for national rule of law, the livelihoods of thousands of community members, and the habitat of the vulnerable African elephant hang in the balance as the government decides whether or not to renew the land lease for the controversial Sithe Global Sustainable Oil Cameroon (SGSOC) oil palm project.
“The Cameroonian government has an opportunity to send a strong signal to foreign investors that it will no longer accept investments that undermine its people and its laws,” said Lisa Handy, EIA Director of Forest Campaigns. “Since the beginning of this oil palm project, SGSOC has shown very little interest in complying with Cameroonian laws at the expense of the national economy, local communities, and unique habitats. The Cameroonian government can now make a decision to lead the country – and the region – in a new direction.”
SGSOC, a company originally owned by the New York-based group Herakles Farms, acquired a 99-year land lease of 73,086 hectares in 2009. The process of granting the concession at that time was very questionable. In November 2013, the initial land lease contract was reviewed by a presidential decree and as a result, the concession was drastically reduced to 19,843 hectares for a probationary three year period. In November, the probationary lease comes to an end and the Cameroonian government must decide whether or not to stop this controversial project.
Since its inception, the SGSOC oil palm project has been associated with illegalities. The company started clear-cutting hundreds of hectares of pristine tropical rainforests and exporting the timber harvested from the concession without the required authorization from the Cameroonian government. The project was also launched without providing a complete environmental impact assessment as required by law. These practices are setting dangerous precedents for a country that is betting on palm oil as a pillar of its national development plan.
The SGSOC oil palm project is a prime example of the extremely concerning forest conversion projects that have proliferated throughout the Congo Basin in recent years. These projects share many of the following characteristics: questionable land right acquisition, shady corporate architecture, lack of traceability in forest resources exploitation and trade, and tensions with neighboring communities. Altogether their development path is fundamentally undermining forest governance in the region and jeopardizing decades of efforts to improve the situation.
“Community lands were demarcated and palms were planted in people’s farms without any proper consultations,” said Dominic Ngwese, CEO of Nature Cameroon. “The Government of Cameroon should not renew this concession simply because this project has proven to bring more conflicts than development in the area.”
In the past several years, Cameroon has witnessed a sharp increase in demand for vast areas of land to develop palm oil plantations due to its biophysical conditions, which are suitable for palm oil expansion. More than one million hectares of land have recently been requested for large-scale monoculture plantations. In many cases, these land acquisitions present a high risk of negatively impacting local communities that depend on land and forests for small-scale subsistence agriculture, as well as hunting and the gathering of non-timber forest products. The promises of local employment, infrastructure development including roads, schools and health centers, and electricity for local people have been used to justify advantageous land leases granted to entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, most cases reveal rampant exploitation of natural resources, while the promises for local development are generally not met.